Gadgets track physical activity

Posted May 16, 2011, at 1:40 p.m.

I’m pretty much obsessed with a little fitness gadget that’s about the size and weight of a baby carrot. It has been clipped almost permanently to my right hip waistband for more than a year, and I think if everyone used one, our globesity – or global obesity – epidemic would ease.

The gadget is a high-tech calorie tracker and pedometer, and it estimates how many calories you burn over the course of the day. It’s connected to an online food and activity diary, too, that lets you quickly log your food intake to make sure your diet is in line with your activity level.

If you’re a technology geek like me, or you just like having toys to keep your workouts fresh and inspired, you might find yourself similarly obsessed, in a good way. Seeing raw numbers in front of you – how much energy you use over the course of a day and how much energy you take in – is a huge wake-up call.

Because here’s the thing: Most of us overestimate how many calories we burn, and we underestimate how many we eat. How many times do we say something like, “Oh, I deserve that extra slice of pizza or piece of chocolate cake because I raked the yard today?”

Well, when I rake the yard for an hour straight, I burn about 200 calories, less than half the calories in a slice of pizza or a piece of cake. Yeah, I know, that doesn’t make me very happy either, but it is reality, and the key thing the trackers help you do is deal with the realities of energy intake and expenditure and the direct correlation to weight loss and, perhaps even more importantly, weight maintenance.

There are several trackers on the market. There’s the little FitBit, which clips to your waistband, bra or pocket, the BodyBugg, which was made famous by being used by contestants on The Biggest Loser, and the GoWearFit, which has an armband. Each works a little differently, and some of the gadgets also track sleep efficiency and other measures such as fluctuations in skin temperature to better estimate how hard you’re working.

Because the trackers are set to your unique parameters – including your height, weight and age – the numbers you get from the devices are yours alone. Prices range from $99 for the FitBit to $200 or more for some of the higher-tech models, and some of them carry online subscription fees or free Web accounts with added fees for premium services.

I like the devices because not only do they offer real data on your energy burn, they also can inspire you to move more. It can be fun to watch your numbers — steps, calories burned or activity points — creep up over the course of a day. On days I get fewer than 10,000 steps I feel like a relative slug.  Right now, I’m in a challenge with some friends who use the same device to see who can rack up the most activity points. I also can watch the activity level of my personal training clients who use the trackers — well, those who want me monitoring their out-of-the gym activities, that is. Using the tracker is fun, and if we can make movement fun, we’re more apt to do it.

It’s also helpful to track your sleep efficiency because there are some real correlations between lack of sleep or nighttime wakefulness and weight gain. Being tired makes us hungry and more apt to fall prey to the snack-room goodies at work. It also messes with our bodies’ stress hormones, which studies show is correlated with belly fat gain — the least healthy place to carry excess fat.

Of course, the trackers won’t do the work of getting fit or staying fit for you. They will, however, help you accurately monitor the work you put into the effort.

Wendy Watkins is a personal trainer and group exercise instructor at the Bangor-Brewer Athletic Club in Brewer.

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